Dhobi Ghat aka Mumbai Diaries was brought to the screen by Aamir Khan who not only stars in the film, he produced the film, and to keep this film totally in the family, the film was directed by his wife, Kiran Rao. This was her first effort as a film director.
Set in Mumbai, India, we follow along with four main characters whose lives will intersect. Aamir Khan plays the artist Arun. He’s in the process of moving to a new apartment and does. He’s moody, a great painter, and is adored by women despite the fact that he claims he is not a relationship guy any longer, no doubt the result of his failed marriage.
His new Art Gallery Opening is where he meets Shai (played by Monica Dogra), who is an American investment banker on sabbatical in Mumbai. They have a quick one-night stand. The following morning, Arun shows his moody side, and Shai storms out, angry as hell.
Munna is a dhobi or washerman – meaning he washes other people’s clothes for a living. And as you can guess, he washed clothes for both Arun and Shai. Munna (played by Prateik Babbar) lives in a slum near the railroad tracks. Despite his meager surroundings, he has dreams of becoming a film actor.
Shai is spending a lot of time working on her hobby – photography. When she finds out that Munna not only washes clothes for Arun, but also has his new address; so she works out a deal with Munna – she will shoot his portfolio that he can show to casting directors and film directors if he will allow her to shoot images of him while he is at work as a dhobi, and for that, he will show her where Arun has just moved to.
Meanwhile Arun has discovered a box left behind in his new flat. The box would include some jewelry and three video letters from a woman called Yasmin Noor. Her role is performed by Kriti Malhotra. As Arun watches the video letters from Yasmin, a newly married woman, to her brother, Arun slowly becomes obsessed with Yasmin.
There’s your set up – Arun is obsessed with Yasmin, Shai is out to make more contact with Arun, Munna slowly develops a crush on Shai. As for Yasmin – you’ll have to watch the film (available on Netflix) to find out what becomes of her.
The structure is not unique. There have been many stories about folks living in the same area whose lives will intersect. Crash comes to mind. But there is actually a fifth character and that would be Mumbai itself. As much as the story has the four central human characters, the film is also a homage to life in the city.
I think this film can be classified as a vanity production. Aamir Khan helped by contributing his star power to this project which was a way of kick-starting Kiran’s career as a screenwriter/director. The film can also wear the mantles of ‘art film’ and or ‘travelogue/docudrama’. But as the writer director intended this is a drama.
Aamir Khan does well – playing his true age rather than a younger romantic lead. Prateik has the flashy good looks that younger women will go for. Kriti Malholtra is really beautiful. She may remind you of a youthful Jane Alexander. But the character that I loved best was Monica Dogra’s Shai. Maybe it was her American English accent that I identified with. But more likely it was her great looks.
The reviews for Dhobi Ghat have been mixed to negative. Many have called the story and drama boring. Many have said that this was a vanity production … and many of those or similar comments are not incorrect. But the film is not without its charms. This is a great view of the city – not just the touristy hot spots that all the visitors will see, but the film also includes the neighborhoods that are not often seen. Many cities have been called a collection of neighborhoods, and Mumbai fits into that identity.
One must also mention the voyeuristic content. It isn’t that it is lewd, or watching someone when one shouldn’t because what the subject is doing is done with the assumption of privacy. It is more of the fact that we are watching the watcher. I suppose this is voyeurism once removed. Shai shoots photos of Arun as he watches Yasmin’s tapes. He is unaware that he is being photographed just as Yasmin can’t know who is watching these video tapes meant for her brother. Despite the fact that this is somewhat discomforting for us as we must acknowledge that we too are part of this voyeurism – it is difficult not to watch and be captivated.
For this alone, the director must be praised.
There are other treasures in this film. One is the rain. The rains come and they go, on a schedule of nature’s design, which means – that there is no schedule at all. Yet, once the rains come, they share the space of the characters taking as much or as little as is necessary, according to the grand plan that has no beginning or end. While it is elemental in principle, making the rain into something of a character is a high concept.
Or when Yasmin goes to the beach (Chowpatty or Juhu? – We cannot tell). She writes her name, Yasmin Noor in the sand at the sea’s edge. The tidal seas rush in and erase her script. She says,
“Nothing lasts here. The sea claims everything. I can share everything with it, tell it all my secrets, and they’ll sink softly to its depths. The sea will keep them safe.”
Is it any wonder that Arun is fascinated by this girl? In fact, the director liked that scene so much that she had Arun go to the beach and repeat what he saw on Yasmin’s tape. Talk about obsessed. Arun even starts to wear some of her jewelry.
We watch as Arun builds his painting; from the first strokes across the canvas – to the blending of the paints on the palette, to running his hand over the painted surface of the canvas. All of this is without dialogue. There’s music and the images seem to leap out you. Not in a three-dimensional sense but in a sense of wonder as they’re so fresh and new to you.
Then there are the photos. We are to think that these are the works of Shai. They are offered as such. But the reality is that Director Rao employed a photographer named Jyotika Jain. Simply the photos are stark, and realistic. Often quite beautiful – the elderly perfume seller, for example. But what the photos give to us on the on the one hand, the memorable images of the faces of Mumbai, they take away on the other. What I mean is that the actors in their roles cannot compete with the images we see of the real Mumbai citizens.
Let’s not forget the more than splendid artworks either. As such, credit must be given to Ravi Mandlik who did the haunting painting of Yasmin which was the final art piece in the film. Arun’s gallery art was done by Sukanya Ghosh.
The film also seems to be looking at the lives of Muslims. The Hindu majority in real life Mumbai is the minority in this film, but Kiran is not doing a film that compares communities. Instead, think of this as a film that compares the lives of four of its citizens.
Even deeper is the thought that Rao is expressing the loneliness and isolation that living in a big city always brings; no matter what country or continent that city is in. A simple glimpse of someone just standing by the road leads to a wrong impression. We know what we are seeing, but the watcher doesn’t. So Rao is building the tension ever so subtlety. There’s a sense of something coming. We aren’t sure what that might be, but we begin to think it won’t be good. Questions have already been gathering in your mind as you watch.
If you approach this film in that regard, and let go of your expectations of what you think a Bollywood film should be then you will find lots to enjoy and cheer about in Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries). But the fact remains that this film is what you might call an ‘indie’. It will not appeal to everyone. But it did appeal to me.
The trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D2S3oGKk7c